Andersen: The saddest book I’ve ever read
The story of humanity was never intended to be a tragedy, but this book tells it as such. At a glance, the title reads: “OVER OVER OVER.” White letters on a black background. Get closer, and it morphs into “OVERdevelopment, OVERpopulation, OVERshoot.”
Between the covers is the story of humanity — or at least part of the story. It is one of the most difficult books I have ever had to read. But I had to read it because, as a human being, this is my story, too.
Some might call this book eco-porn for its apocalyptic global view as told in stunning images that decry what humans are doing to our fellow life forms, our oceans, our landscapes. This book exhibits how human agency is carelessly and recklessly assaulting the equilibrium of the natural world.
The dedication reads: “To the wild beauty, ecological richness, and cultural diversity being swept away by the rising tide of humanity.”
Most people will close the book here, not wanting to accept what the images so vibrantly portray. But a picture is not an opinion; it is a truth told through a camera lens. Denying it is to deny reality. For many, denial is the only solution to despair.
This book is available at the Basalt Regional Library, which is where I was forced to see it. By chance, a friend called me over to a display podium.
“Look at this, Paul,” he said. And I knew I had to.
The book begins with the premise that human population is on a runaway trajectory: “Who can say, with an honest heart, that the suffering of the Earth and millions of her children is not linked to the exponential growth in human numbers?”
This book is a litmus test. If you feel uneasy — perhaps queasy — paging through it, then you feel something for the human condition and our failed relationship with nature. And if you feel, then you are part of a possible solution.
“Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking so that humans stop threatening our life-support system,” wrote Wangari Maathai, an African environmental activist who died in 2011. “We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own — indeed to embrace the whole of creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder.”
The photographs that fill most of the pages track the historical relationship between man and Earth — from an early age of innocence to a rising anthropocentric holocaust. When man was small and few, Earth was rich and abundant. When man became large and many, Earth became poor and plundered.
“Our quest for greater and greater material prosperity is now impoverishing future generations,” wrote William Ryerson, who stated that overshoot has exceeded Earth’s ability to provide for humans whose appetites require two Earths.
“Modern day alchemists are trying to find ways of sustaining perpetual growth in a finite and increasing resource-constrained world,” Ryerson continued. “Like the philosopher’s stone, it does not exist.”
Many of the pictures in this book abrade the eyes, stun the mind and scorch the soul. I won’t try to describe them, as they are beyond words. Paging through the book is a journey into a hellish nightmare that requires tenacity and fortitude. Be forewarned: These pictures have profound psycho-emotional impact.
The message here is that birth rates must drop, that fewer children should be born and that the immense human burden must be lifted. It must start with prevention of unplanned pregnancies, education on carrying capacity, environmental sensitivity and the bridging of cultural barriers.
Why explore this book? Because it provides a reckoning for who we are and what we are doing. This book is important in a world where “impoverishment is taken for progress.”
Ultimately the book makes us aware that we are global citizens. If we fail to acknowledge our role as a species, we consign ourselves and the natural world to a dubious fate. Only by facing the truth of our overcommitted world can we adjust to the limits we see before us.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays when he’s not stunned by the imbalance of man in the natural world. He can be reached at email@example.com.